POLICE and community leaders in several Florida cities were last night preparing for the prospect of civil unrest as a jury was sent out to consider its verdict in the murder trial of a neighbourhood watch leader who shot dead an unarmed black teenager.
Officers in Miami practiced riot drills with horses and batons ahead of the decision in the trial of George Zimmerman, who claims he acted in self-defence when he shot Trayvon Martin, 17, at his housing development in Sanford in February last year.
Lawyers in the case delivered closing remarks yesterday morning and a verdict could come as early as today.
Miami, Mr Martin’s home town, has a history of racial unrest and saw the deaths of 18 people in 1980 following the acquittal of four white police officers accused of beating a black motorist to death.
“We are preparing for the worst but hoping for the best,” said Dr Walter Richardson, chairman of the Miami-Dade community relations board that held a public meeting earlier this week to educate and update citizens about the progress of the three-week trial.
Although a Miami police spokesman insisted the timing of the riot practice was a coincidence, another source said the department’s intelligence team had been scouring social media sites for “unusual interest” in the Zimmerman trial.
In Sanford, the central Florida town where about a quarter of the 53,000 population is black, police chief Cecil Smith confirmed he had talked with officials of the federal departments of justice and homeland security but stressed there was “nothing out there” to suggest there would be any violent or widespread public reaction to an acquittal.
As part of a longstanding plan of “precautionary measures,” a team of local pastors has worked shifts sitting in the courtroom to keep residents informed and try to quell any anger that might follow Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Church elders have pointed out that civil rights protests attracting tens of thousands passed off peacefully last spring when Zimmerman was initially released without charge and not arrested for 44 days.
Meanwhile, Scott Israel, the sheriff of Broward County further to the south, aired a “raise your voices, not your hands” advert on television this week as part of a wider response plan.
“We just want to be prepared,” he said.
Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, wrapped up the defence case by urging the all-female jury of six not to rely on “could have beens” and “what ifs” as they determine his guilt or innocence.
“What aren’t words of good prosecutors are maybe, what if, I hope so, you figure it out, could have been,” Mr O’Mara said, referring to Thursday’s closing arguments by state attorney Bernie de la Rionda.
To prove second-degree murder, the state must show that Zimmerman acted with spite, hatred or ill-will when he shot Mr Martin. The defendant faces at least 25 years in jail if convicted, or up to 30 if the jury finds him guilty of manslaughter.
Zimmerman, who pleaded not guilty on the grounds of self-defence, insists Mr Martin began the confrontation with a “sucker punch” that broke his nose and then smashed his head on a concrete pavement, leaving him no option but to fire his pistol to save his life.